The sounds and smells of that hot, bloody day still run through Twe DeBolt's mind, although she is totally blind. The C5A transport plane shuddered and slammed into the rice paddy outside Saigon; she was thrown into the muck as the stench of burning fuel and the screams of dozens of dying Vietnamese orphans hit her at once.
Twe was 13 then, uneducated and--in her adoptive father's words--"almost a wild animal." In the seven years since, she has graduated from a school for the blind and discovered a talent for singing and the piano.
Now, with the filing Thursday of a proposed settlement of a lawsuit in Washington, D.C., she and 44 other Vietnamese orphans may be able to put aside seven years of legal wrangling that served only to keep the nightmare alive.
If accepted by government lawyers and U.S. District Judge Louis F. Oberdorfer, the settlement will write the last chapter of one of the most moving stories of the 1970s: "Operation Babylift."
In the last hectic months before the communist takeover of South Vietnam, about 2,000 Vietnamese children from orphanages reached the United States through the haphazard airlift organized by several service agencies and ad hoc groups. Amidst this effort of surprising and heartening success came one great tragedy, the crash of the C5A transport on April 4, 1975, killing 135 of 330 persons on board including 76 of 226 orphans.
Most of the surviving babies and children appeared at first to have suffered no permanent injuries, but as they began their American lives, their adoptive parents began to notice many of them could not stop crying for long spells, could not sit still and could not concentrate on school lessons for more than a few minutes.
Eventually, lawyers for 45 of the children filed suit against the U.S. government and the Lockheed Aircraft Corp. charging that the children had suffered brain damage from decompression and oxygen deprivation when a door of the aircraft blew out, and from the force of the crash itself. After a long series of legal maneuvers, a tentative $13.5 million settlement was filed in U.S. District Court.
Robert DeBolt, a Piedmont, Calif., civil engineer who numbers seven Vietnamese refugees (including Twe and her fellow air crash survivor Ly Vo) among his 20 children, said, "These kids have now got another chance. I think our two kids are going to become contributing members of society."
The vast majority of babylift adoptions have been "an overwhelming success," said Cheryl Markson, director of the Denver-based Friends of Children of Vietnam, which brought 419 children to the United States. Some older adoptees have sent her their high school graduation notices.
Racial differences between adoptive parents and children have created few if any troubles, she said. Many parents have followed the agency's recommendation that they teach their children as much as possible about their Vietnamese heritage. As a result, Markson said, "a lot of adoptive kids know more about their culture than some of the refugee kids coming over with their parents."
Under the proposed terms of the air crash settlement, lawyers and parents said, each child would be entitled to about $10,000 to treat learning problems, speech disabilities and coordination difficulties which some doctors blame on the crash. Each child also could draw on a $50,000 trust fund for medical emergencies.
Although Oberdorfer may change the proposal, at least 50 percent of the total award would go to the children, one source said. One third would pay attorneys' fees and one-sixth would pay for medical experts and a court-appointed guardian during several years of preliminaries leading up to the decision not to go to trial. Lawsuits for five other surviving young victims were settled earlier for an average of about $723,000 each.
Carroll Dubuc, an attorney representing the C5A manufacturer, Lockheed, said the company had argued that some children have no injuries and that the medical problems of others were due to poor health care in Vietnam. Dubuc said the proposed settlement meant the company was "giving them the benefit of the doubt" while accepting no responsibility for the accident.
The award money from the proposed settlement would be dispensed by local courts.
Lawyers still are arguing if surviving children in Europe may have their lawsuits heard in the United States. Mark A. Dombroff of the Justice Department said the government agreed to settle so that children who need help could get it without the "tortuous process" of a prolonged trial.
Pamella Morrill of Bronxville, N.Y., said she would use the money to finance special education for her son Dirk, now 8. Dirk was abandoned in a maternity hospital in Vietnam shortly after his birth.
While waiting for his arrival from Vietnam in 1975, Pamella and her husband Tom heard the news of the plane crash "in absolute disbelief." They were overjoyed when they heard that Dirk had survived, she said, and Tom Morrill found nothing physically wrong with the baby he picked up in California.
But, she said, "Dirk had problems from the beginning." He would cry whenever left alone. As he grew older he picked fights at school and became uncontrollably upset at any change in his routine.
She said she may move Dirk into a private school with smaller classes if he continues to have trouble in the larger classes of his public school. He has been tutored this summer, she said, "and is doing amazingly well." He knows about the crash, "and feels badly about the children who didn't make it," she said.
In the rural setting of Colville, Wash., Lori Carnie, 8, has a horse that she adores, but her own nervous disorder makes it difficult for her to sit still on the animal. Her twin brother Landon excels at mathematics, but their mother Deanna Carnie said he "really needs help with reading."
Their father, George Carnie, a leader of the group of parents involved in the suit, first saw the twins in Vietnam. He was told their mother had died and their father was in the army, unable to care for them.
The twins' natural father has never been located, but the natural parents of a few other babylift children have been discovered still alive. Most of them remain in Vietnam.
In a few cases, natural parents have reached the United States and sought custody from the adoptive parents, Markson said. In a Connecticut case, she said, the adoptive parent retained custody. In an Iowa case, a child was returned to its natural mother.
Markson said some Vietnamese mothers gave their children to orphanages to get them out of the country and they have established contact with the U.S. parents who adopted their children. But, she said, "I know of not one who has expressed any regret at sending their children out."
Twe DeBolt, 21, whose natural parents died in a bomb blast, has not recovered from the memories of the plane crash. She still shakes in fear whenever she must ride in a car or an elevator. When she had to fly to Washington, D.C., for legal proceedings, her father said, she was so agitated during the takeoff she had to be held down.
DeBolt, 50, and his wife Dorothy, 58, have another daughter, Ly Vo, 21, who also survived the crash but suffered severe physical injuries, five broken bones in her legs and severe internal injuries. Childhood polio had long before crippled her below the waist and she had moved about the orphanage on a skateboard contraption, wearing mittens to protect her hands as they propelled her.
Twe was rescued from the rice paddy and put on the next flight to California. But Ly had to be taken to a hospital near Saigon's airport and put in a full body cast. When the communists took Saigon and the DeBolts heard nothing from Ly, they assumed they would never see her.
"Then we got a call three days later from Travis [air base], saying, 'We've got your daughter here,' " DeBolt said. Somehow Ly had caught the last medical evacuation plane out of Vietnam and arrived in California the day before Mother's Day.
The plane crash left Ly with recurring severe headaches and sudden memory losses, still an occasional handicap when she takes examinations at school. She also developed a bone disease that may have been caused by the multiple fractures.
But she graduated from Piedmont high school and soon will begin her second year of junior college. She wants to be a doctor.
Like all of the DeBolt children, she is helping pay her way through college. Despite her braces and crutches, she waits on tables in a Vietnamese restaurant.
As DeBolt describes it, Ly "to an extent feels like she has been born again." Having survived the polio, the bomb blast which killed her mother, the war and the plane crash, "she feels that she must have been left on this earth for some reason."